Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Little Match Girl: Thoughts and Facts (part 2)

Inspiration and publication

Hans Christian Andersen was given the opportunity to write a new fairy tale for the upcoming Danish People Calendar for 1846. This booklet was published annually for the general public. As well as creative writing, it would contain useful information such as dates and statistics.

The story was to be based on one of three illustrations sent to Andersen. It was Johan Thomas Lundbye’s drawing of a little beggar girl (with a bundle of matchsticks in her hand) that inspired him the most. I don’t know any Danish, so am unsure how reliable this source is, but here’s what looks to be a photograph of ‘The Little Match Girl’ as it appears in the Danish People Calendar for 1846, with the original Lundbye illustration that caught Andersen’s interest.

Andersen wrote ‘The Little Match Girl’ during his one-month stay with the Duke of Augustenborg. The fairy tale was published in December 1845.

Past and present

Working, homeless and beggar children were not unusual in the nineteenth century. Begging itself was a rising issue, so the response of most authorities was to make begging a criminal offence. Children on the streets would sell matches or newspapers to avoid getting arrested.

Since Andersen came from a poor background, it’s easy to see why he was so affected by Lundbye’s illustration. At the time of writing ‘The Little Match Girl’, he was a well-established writer with a number of successful publications. He had also been given an annual grant by the king of Denmark in 1838, allowing him to write whatever he wished. He was living in success that his parents had never known. Perhaps, in Lundbye’s illustration, Andersen saw his own family’s history of poverty.

According to Andersen himself, his fairy tale characters were based on real-life people. In the case of ‘The Little Match Girl’, the heart of the story came not only from Andersen’s own experiences, but also from his mother’s. He shares in his autobiography his mother’s childhood memories of begging on the streets. Whenever she went home empty-handed, her parents treated her cruelly. Sometimes, she would be too scared to go home and instead spent the night outside.

Even as a writer gaining international fame and recognition, Andersen never forgot his roots.

The ending

Does the little match girl really have to die?

Plenty of people think she shouldn’t, because ‘The Little Match Girl’ is first and foremost a children’s story. Allowing the lead character to freeze to death is cruel and distressing. How would a child respond to such an ending? For that matter, what are grown-ups supposed to get out of this fairy tale? Isn’t children’s literature supposed to distract us from the horrors of day-to-day living?

Unsurprisingly, there are versions of the story where the little girl survives and is granted a warm and loving home (Maria Tatar points to a 1944 American translation, which guarantees a “happily ever after”). Andersen, however, selected Lundbye’s illustration of a beggar girl for a reason.

One can easily turn a blind eye on the poor, but by confronting his own history of poverty and translating its reality into the form of a children’s story, Andersen was telling the people of the world to look. It’s a story about a child, for a child, based on very real childhood experiences. It’s arguably because of the tragic ending that ‘The Little Match Girl’ has managed to live on in people’s hearts.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Little Match Girl: Thoughts and Facts (part 1)

Once upon a time

I was daunted by the idea of choosing ‘The Little Match Girl’ as my second fairy tale. It didn’t matter what cute, funny and colourful things I drew for ‘Snow White and Rose Red’, but ‘The Little Match Girl’ has a special kind of magic. I had to figure out how to keep my art light-hearted without overlooking the soul of Hans Christian Andersen’s masterpiece.

I actually have no idea how I came to know the unforgettable tale, but this is a great opportunity to learn about its making. People all over the world have taken the story to their hearts, so there’s a lot to be said!

This first instalment of Thoughts and Facts will put the spotlight on Disney’s The Little Match Girl (2006).

Disney’s adaptation

‘The Little Match Girl’ has inspired countless works, but the one that comes to my mind is Disney’s short traditionally-animated film. It may shock you to hear that I was a little disappointed with the visual effects. I expected to be spellbound by the little girl’s visions as she gazed into the flame of the match, but although these scenes were beautifully painted, they just didn’t deliver the fairy dust I’m used to seeing from Walt Disney Studios.

You can, nonetheless, feel the love that went into making the piece, because if there’s one thing Disney can’t do wrong, it’s the art of storytelling. The animation for the little girl is engaging and authentic. The transitions from cold reality to warm dream are faultless. There’s expert use of colour and the choice of music couldn’t be better. Given how iconic ‘The Little Match Girl’ is, however, I wish they took the visual effects to premier level (think Disney Fantasia 2000: ‘Firebird Suite’). Extra investment would have sent the little girl’s dreams soaring, but to be fair, you do get the sense that the makers made every cent they had count.

Though I expected more, the adaptation is still a thoughtful one. It stayed with me and I was eager to watch it again the moment I decided to look at ‘The Little Match Girl’ fairy tale. I was thrilled to find such a gem on Disney’s The Little Mermaid DVD. It’s also part of a collection of short animated Disney films (alongside Frozen Fever and Tangled Ever After) that was released on DVD earlier this year.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Disney chose not to produce an accurate retelling of Andersen’s story. There isn’t a scene where the little girl loses her shoes and nothing suggests that she has a house or parents to go back to. What came as a pleasant surprise was the ending. Disney has a reputation for making everything end happily ever after, but in the case of ‘The Little Match Girl’, the makers wisely left the course of Andersen’s story unchanged. The closing scene is powerful and poignant, leaving no doubt that the heart of the short film is exactly the same as the heart of Andersen’s original narrative.

As a piece of animation, there’s nothing spectacular or ground-breaking to be seen, so unless you happen to want Disney’s The Little Mermaid or collection of short films on DVD, I wouldn’t recommend seeking to buy it. If you know someone who owns either DVD and you’re passionate about fairy tales, then I’d highly recommend borrowing it to see ‘The Little Match Girl’ as interpreted by Disney.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The Little Match Girl fairy tale

The following is my summary of the fairy tale 'The Little Match Girl' by Hans Christian Andersen.

It was mercilessly cold. Snow fell from the darkening sky and a poor, small girl wandered the streets. She wore nothing on her head and nothing on her feet. That morning, she had indeed left the house with a pair of slippers, but they belonged to her mother and were far too big.

The little girl lost the slippers when she crossed the road; she had to run to avoid two frightfully-fast carriages. One of the slippers fell completely out of sight. The other was snatched by a little boy, who said it would make a good cradle for a baby someday.

The icy ground had turned the little girl’s feet red and blue. In her hand was a bundle of unsold matches. Inside the pockets of her tired apron were more still. Nobody would buy from her that day, nor give her one skilling. The child was downtrodden, hungry and very cold.

Snowflakes dusted her angelic hair, which fell into curls around her shoulders. She didn’t have a care for how she looked. The windows around her shone with honey-coloured light. Out to the streets came the mouth-watering smell of roast goose. It was New Year’s Eve and the little girl couldn’t possibly think of anything else.

She found a spot where she could rest: a corner made by two houses, one of which had been built further into the street than the other. The little girl sat down and tucked her feet beneath her, but nothing could help the cold.

She would find no warmth at her parents’ house. If she went back empty-handed, her father would beat her. Their rickety roof, stopped up with bunches of straw and old rags, gave little protection from the biting wind.

One match might be enough to warm her frozen hands. She swiped the match across the wall, bringing forth a flame as bright as a little lantern. She held her hands over the light and for a wonderful moment, it was as if a great, hot, iron stove was burning in front of her. Eager to warm her toes, she stretched out her feet, but the fire died and left her with nothing more than the burnt-out match.

She struck another match against the wall, which started to fade in the light of the new flame. The little girl could see into the room on the other side, where there was a table laid with the whitest of cloths and the most beautiful, glittering porcelain. At the heart was a succulent roast goose that had generously been stuffed with apples and prunes.

The most marvellous sight of all was the goose abandoning its plate and jumping off the table. With a knife and a fork still stuck in its back, the goose crossed the floor to meet the little girl, but before it could reach her, the flame vanished and the empty face of the wall loomed once more.

She lit another match and found herself sitting before a magnificent Christmas tree. This tree was even grander than the one she saw through the glass doors of a merchant’s house. The leafy branches sparkled with the lights of a hundred candles and there were lovely miniature portraits, the kind displayed behind shop windows, and each one looked kindly upon the little girl. As the little girl held up her hand, the flame from the match gave out.

She watched as each candle from the Christmas tree floated away, flying higher and higher until they became shining stars in the black sky. One of the stars dropped out of the night and left a dazzling white trail in its wake.

The little girl remembered what her grandmother said about falling stars. It was a sign that someone was dying. Somewhere, there was a soul being delivered to heaven. Her grandmother had died and was the only one who ever showed her kindness.

When the little girl struck another match, she saw her blessed grandmother standing with her inside the glowing circle. In the lines of her grandmother’s gentle face was all the love she had ever known. Should the light go out, it would all be taken away and the little girl would again be alone.

Her little hands took up all the matches they could possibly hold and the most glorious light appeared when she set the matches ablaze. The fire was brilliant as day and radiant as sunshine. Bathed in heavenly rays, grandmother never looked more beautiful. She held the little girl safely in her arms and carried her to a place where suffering can never be.

In the dawn of the new day, they found the frozen child in the corner made by two houses. She had died on the last night of the year gone by, but her cheeks were rosy and her face was smiling. Charred stubs of burnt-out matches laid scattered around her.

People said she was trying to find some warmth. Nobody could imagine the wonders she had seen, nor the joy she had felt as she met the New Year with her grandmother.

Read the complete story by purchasing a collection of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales that has been professionally translated from the original Danish. The following books were consulted to write this summary:

Andersen, Hans Christian, Fairy Tales, ed. Jackie Wullschlager (London: Penguin Classics, 2005).

Andersen, Hans Christian, The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. Jean Hersholt (San Diego: Canterbury Classics, 2014).

Andersen, Hans Christian, The annotated Hans Christian Andersen, ed. Maria Tatar (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008).

Andersen, Hans Christian, Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, ed. Neil Philip (London: The Reader's Digest, 2006).

Tatar, Maria (ed.), The Classic Fairy Tales (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999).